What the Oscars can teach us About Inclusive Practices…and Innovation in General

By Matthew Ratz, M.Ed.
In Guest Bloggers

Though I was an English literature major in college, I concentrated the bulk of my credits on the study of film. I have always felt that film was the modern equivalent to literature insofar as a good film, like a good novel, can enthrall its audience and escort them to a far-off land of fantasy and possibility. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t had the opportunity to teach film as literature, but I have maintained a keen interest in it, and I still foster the belief that today’s films are the literature of our era. As such, a survey of great film can provide the cultural milieu of its era and serve as a barometer of public opinion.

Few critical avenues for film are as widely known and celebrated as the Academy Awards, the Oscars; they are like the Pulitzer Prize of cinema. Films that are recognized by the Academy Awards’ nominating committee deserve high honors and acclaim. Two such films in this year’s Oscars race point to an interesting trend in society that has implications in how we educate and work with those who learn or think differently from how we learn and think; these two films, The Artist and Moneyball, both “Best Picture” nominees this awards season, demonstrate two unique views of working within the field of academic diversity. Now, before you say, “What do silent films and baseball stories have to do with Special Education,” allow me to explain…

The Artist is the story of a silent film actor who, at the dawn of “talkie” films, refuses to change with the times. It just so happens that “talkies” break out as the 1929 stock market crashes, so this out-of-work actor whose pride and ego deny him the ability to break into this new avenue is left to pick up the pieces of his once-great but now-shattered existence. Moneyball, on the other hand, is the story of Billy Bean, the General Manager of the 2001-2002 Oakland Athletics ball club; the film examines how he, using statistical analysis and economic predictions, is able to assemble a team on a shoestring budget who are able to break the record for most consecutive games won in all of Major League Baseball history. The film’s narrative arch explores the trials and tribulations of breaking with tradition and taking a new direction. While I don’t want to spoil either film’s ending (as you’ll likely want to see them both), I will say that their narratives point to the two trends in Education as well as the general trend in the corporate world too when it comes to innovation and those who think differently.

What both films demonstrate is that when things change there are two major schools ofthought. The first, as exemplified by the protagonist of The Artist, is the group convinced “This too shall pass.” In Education we often hear, “This is just another fad. It’ll be gone in five years.” This group stubbornly digs in their heels in the belief that how it was done will prevail over how it is now being done; they are often the first to ridicule new approaches to teaching and the last to “jump on the bandwagon” if they don’t retire first. The second group, as exemplified by the protagonist of Moneyball, is made up of those willing to risk it all for the purpose of changing a deeply-held but false structure in society. In the film it was baseball scouting, but in the Education world it’s the folks who are knee-deep in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Dewey’s Experiential Education, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory, Montessori’s Student-Centered classroom, Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction, or McTighe’s Understanding by Design. These people don’t just “drink the Kool Aid”; rather, they’re the ones mixing it and encouraging other to take a sip.

These two schools of thought inevitably meet, and the results, if not managed with an air of mutual respect, may lead to pedagogic and organizational brawls that split faculty and destroy collegial relationships. Members of these two schools of thought really do exist on different planets, as it were, because one school cannot exist without the other’s philosophies and behaviors yet they believe the other to be “off their rocker” and “naïve and misguided.” However, if each side took the time to reflect on their areas of similarity, many arguments could be ended or even avoided.

So what does all of this have to do with including academically-diverse students? Well, the Oscars will award the film that best conveys its central message through its use of visual rhetoric and skilled direction; but history will judge our era as one where we were confronted with the need for change and even provided innovators of change. Our political, economic, professional, social, and academic worlds are at a cross-roads, and we get to decide which direction we go. Our destiny will be decided based on how wereact to this change, what practices we embrace, what archaic beliefs we discard, and what values of camaraderie and egalitarianism we instill in the next generation. Only through collaboration and a clear vision will we be able to succeed in giving our students and colleagues innovative outlooks for a brighter future.

And the award goes to…

Matthew Ratz, M.Ed. is an educator who has taught middle school, high school, and college-level English writing and literature. He is certified in the areas of English, Social Studies, and Special Education, and he has taught student populations in suburban, rural, and urban public schools; his most-recent position was as the Learning Specialist at a private, Jewish school in Maryland, and he is currently an Adjunct Professor at a local community college. Matthew’s master’s degree focus was on the positive effects of creative, authentic assessment on a high-school English literature class. Additionally, he has studied academic diversity and differentiated instruction under Dr. Scott Goldberg (at YU) and Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson (at UVA). His areas of continued interest include engaging instructional practices, student-centered curriculum development, the use of humor and popular media in the classroom, and the transformation of education for the 21st Century and beyond. He can be reached at [email protected].